24 Jun 2020

Standing Together: A Q+A with Jennifer Eliason, Associate Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Jen Eliason

by Shona Simkin

In this first of two conversations with Jen Eliason, we ask her about her role, what this moment means at HBS, and how we can start to become anti-racist.

Can you tell us about your role and the work that you do?
This is my first year here at HBS. I’ve been engaged in social justice work for my entire career, and in higher education social justice for 16 years. At HBS, I have a dual report to the Dean’s Office and in Human Resources yet the scope of my work encompasses all HBS stakeholders. I’ve been focused on having conversations across campus, getting to know the different perspectives and what people believe our needs are in regards to diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

This is the first time I’ve had a portion of my role directed specifically to HR, and that’s important. When we look at diversity and inclusion across the academic experience data tells us that across the country faculty and students generally feel that there are diversity services available to them, and staff almost universally never feel the same way. Sometimes it feels like those support services are not in place for staff because we spend so much of our energy taking care of our students and faculty, and rightfully so. I’m really glad to be invested in this work that includes HR, and to spend time connecting with department and unit heads to talk about diversity and inclusion, so that I can really target my work to their specific needs.

What are you hearing from the HBS community right now, with respect to the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against police brutality?
First and foremost, I want to say that this is a new conversation primarily for white people. Black Americans have always felt the experience of racism. Other communities of color have always had experiences with racism and discrimination. It has been an everyday conversation for people of color their entire lives. Many white folks, even those of us who consider ourselves allies, are deeply saddened to realize that racism is prevalent. For many white people, this is the first time in which racism has been a daily, in your face conversation. It’s in the news, social media, here at work—it is all anyone is talking about. For many it has created a feeling of helplessness.

That is particularly true here at HBS, where we are action oriented. We identify a problem and move into action mode to solve it—we build a team, a committee, and a plan. It is incredibly hard to think that we've hit a problem that cannot be solved in a month. A deep and robust conversation about race and racism is 400 years coming in our country. There have been points in our history where we've had these conversations for a long and protracted time, but for most of us this is a generational water shift. It has actually only been two weeks, but it feels like a tremendously long period of time for people who have not had to think about race and racism every day. Because of that, many people have reached out saying they feel powerless and hopeless, and that they don't know what they can do to change this situation.

How can we get started on this work?
The most important thing that anyone can do is to start on a journey of self-reflection and self-education. This is an opportunity to listen, learn, and enhance your knowledge. And this is what the HBS community is the best at! We are the very best at taking time for reflection, knowledge, and scholarship. I think that's what many of us should be spending our initial time doing right now.

Enhance your knowledge and reading, and start to think about the actions you can do in your community and at HBS. What are the changes that you would like to see in the world, and how can you activate them? If you have concerns about policy related to policing, take it upon yourself to research those policies in your community. Who are the elected officials to contact? What are the local nonprofits doing work in this space? How can you engage with them? Who are the friends and allies in your community that you can join with in these efforts, who bring different perspectives?

Another thing to do is to start having difficult conversations. Many people have had to come face to face with people in their lives and communities who may not share their values and perspectives. It’s very hard to find out that there are people you love who feel differently about race and racism. What are the conversations you can have with them? That is part of the obligation of those of us who are white—we need to commit ourselves to talking about race and racism with other white people.

Do you have any advice about how to have those difficult conversations, especially with family members?
The first step is to start to build skills in being uncomfortable. This is particularly hard for those of us who work here at HBS because one of the things we pride ourselves on is our deep sense of collegiality. It's a very non-confrontational culture that thrives on collegiality and relationship building. A lot of us haven't built skills at work in order to have those conversations at home. This is an opportunity to start building those skills, and to learn how to recognize the degrees of difficulty of each of these conversations.

When I first came to anti-racism work, I was pretty famous as the girl who could ruin any family dinner in 30 seconds or less. Like many, I wanted to demonstrate that I was an ally as loudly as I could. I needed to make other white folks know that I was right and they were wrong—that they had not thought deeply about these issues and I had, and that they needed to feel guilty because they hadn't done the self-reflection that I had. None of those are persuasive arguments.

One of the activities that I hope we all want to engage in together is moving the needle. Moving the conversation about race and racism from discomfort to comfort. Many of us start from an adversarial position; telling others, “This is what you’re wrong about.” I can't tell you not to do that, if that's where you are in your anti-racism journey, but I can tell you that conversation and dialogue almost always win the day.

Do you have any specific suggestions for beginning that dialogue?
I suggest starting with a simple question—an interrogatory inquiry. When you wildly disagree with someone but don't know how to move forward, one of the most powerful things you can do is to stop the conversation and ask a question; “What did you mean by that? I don't understand.” It forces the other person to stop and explain. If you continue to move forward that process of inquiry, “Can you continue to explain? I don't understand that point.” It allows you to break down each component of their argument as they explain their perspective. Most people begin to see that not only do you not understand, perhaps you don't agree.

Opening yourself up to deep dialogue makes a deep impact. That is based on relationship building over time to grow conversations about race and racism. If you have never talked with your grandmother about race and racism, yelling at her about something she heard on the news is not going to be the best way into that conversation. I would suggest starting an open conversation, asking instead, “What did you learn about racism? What did you hear about racism?”

One of the things we know is that most Americans feel that their education around the history of race and racism is not very deep. Our education system very rarely allows for the full trajectory and history of race and racism. That means that it becomes learning that we have to do in our families and communities. Asking people what they're learning, what they've learned in the past, and committing to having those conversations over time allows you to deepen the conversation. If you can start to have short conversations about how they developed their own perspectives, then you can move that needle and begin some relearning about race and racism.

Once someone has engaged in education and conversation, what is a next step?
Something that is very helpful for those in the beginning stages of their anti-racism journey is to commit to journaling. Answer a few prompts for yourself once a week. What did I do to pursue anti-racism this week? Write down what you read, what you learned, what you thought about. What did I do to be an anti-racism ally at work this week? What did I do to be anti-racist in my community this week? Not every week are you going to be able to write something down, and that's ok. This is a journey that we're all on together. No one gets it perfect, but one of the ways that we can start to hold ourselves accountable is by writing something down once a week. Then you're able to move yourself forward.

Stay tuned for Part Two of the conversation with Jen, which covers how to talk about race and engage in race work in our workspaces, and resources at HBS.

Read part two of this Q+A


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